KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Not long after Mike Magee finished formally speaking with reporters during his Volkswagen MLS MVP crowning celebration on Thursday, he had to answer one last volley about the real rigors of retuning home to the Midwest.
“How does it feel being back in the cold?” one reported asked, a not-so-subtle nod to the below-freezing temperatures in Kansas City this week.
“Cold?” Magee quipped. “With all these lights, I’m sweating up here.”
Indeed, the Chicago Fire forward was the absolute center of attention for perhaps the first time in his career after winning the league MVP award, a fitting punctuation to one of the biggest individual breakout seasons in MLS history.
Not that the 29-year-old Magee wasn’t already a well-known commodity in MLS – he’s been in the league since he was 17 and was an integral supporting cast member of the LA Galaxy’s two MLS Cup titles in 2011 and 2012 and scored in the 2009 final as well – but this was something new. After posting a career-best 21 goals this season during time spent with the Galaxy and the Fire, Magee stunningly rose to the ranks of the league’s best, topping clinical Italian striker Marco Di Vaio of the Montreal Impact as well as Irish international and Galaxy star Robbie Keane.
The soft-spoken Magee – who used the term “surreal” repeatedly during his ceremony on Thursday night – said the news that he was a finalist came as a surprise, and that the fateful call that made him an MVP was so stunning he thought maybe it was a mistake.
“I spent the next week wondering if the phone call was real,” he said.
It was no mistake, thanks to the fact that whichever team Magee played with this year –a star-studded Galaxy side or a middling Fire team that badly needed his help – won with him in the lineup. Despite being one of the smallest star forwards in the league – “I did not realize being 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds in MLS would be so difficult,” he admitted – Magee’s teams went 16-9-7 with him on the field, and his injection into the Fire lineup via a controversial trade for Robbie Rogers in May brought the Fire back from life support and nearly to a once unthinkable playoff berth.
How Magee landed in Chicago is well known by now. When Rogers expressed his interest in returning to MLS but only to play for the Galaxy, Magee raised his hand to be traded in a move that would reunite him with family back in his native Chicago.
Magee quickly deflected questions about Rogers or the Galaxy on Thursday, but was more than willing to discuss the biggest reason he left the perennial Cup contender in LA: his 3-year-old daughter.
And there she was, sitting front row center while he listed off his thank-yous, before ending his acceptance speech in fitting fashion.
“Thank you,” he said, with a pause, “and I love my family.”
The only knock on Magee’s record this season wasn’t a small one, but the voters found a way to overlook it. Magee becomes just the second MVP in league history to win the award while playing on a team that missed the postseason – D.C. United’s Dwayne De Rosario did the same in 2011 – and his critics often said the award should probably go to Keane, Di Vaio or even Portland’s Diego Valeri, who all led their team to playoff berths.
Even Magee’s former teammate Landon Donovan threw in his two cents last month, telling media in LA that Keane should have been a shoe-in after the Fire were eliminated from the postseason race with a loss to the New York Red Bulls in the regular season finale.
Magee – who was a postseason hero for LA each of the past two seasons, with six goals in 10 games – admitted he could see the argument.
“I agree with them,” he said of his critics. “But having said that, we did something pretty special. Obviously I wish I was with the team from the start, but in this league, sometimes you just need a spark. And what we accomplished over the course of the past two and a half months was pretty amazing.”
Following previous stops in his career with New York and LA and positional changes in the midfield and at forward, Magee seems to be more than content to play out the rest of his career right where he is.
After all, there’s no sense in changing things now. He’s bounced around enough by this point in his life to know that where he plays on the field - forward, finally – and where he rests his head - home, sweet home – were two huge factors that thrust him into the spotlight, and what just might keep him there for years to come.
“I’ve had a lot more seasons that had ups and downs, but this season, it just seemed like things just kept getting better,” he said. “From a soccer standpoint, and a life standpoint.”